The Great Service in the Chapel Royal
William BYRD (c.1540-1623)
Constitues eos [1:11]
Psalm 11: When Israel came out of Egypt [1:54]
Te Deum [9:35]
Sing joyfully unto God our strength [2:38]
Ninc scio vere (prima pars)[3:50]
Prelude in C (organ solo) [1:14]
Hodie Simon Petrus [3:34]
Psalm 47: O clap your hands together, all ye people [3:11]
Verse in C (organ solo) [2:05]
Nunc dimittis [5:02]
O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth [2:27]
Steven Devine (organ)
Musica Contexta; The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble/Simon Ravens
rec. 2-4 May 2011, St. John’s Church, Norwood, London
CHANDOS CHAN 0789 [67:24]
Despite its importance in Byrd’s sacred output, the Great Service has surprisingly few recordings. Arkivmusic.com lists just two additional performances: The Tallis Scholars, conducted by Peter Phillips on Gimell, and the Westminster Abby Choir under James O’Donnell on Hyperion. As one might expect, The Tallis Scholars’ performance is strikingly beautiful, though the beauty is sometimes achieved at the expense of fervent expression of the words. O’Donnell and his Westminster Abbey Choir earned several glowing reviews (see review), and, as in the present recording, intersperse the many parts of the service with anthems and motets in English.
Discovered in 1922 in Durham Cathedral, The Great Service divides into three sections: Matins, Communion and Evensong. Featuring two five-part choirs, Byrd’s love of timbral and textural contrast is readily apparent. Simon Raven, in his authoritative notes, argues that the music has a “kaleidoscopic character” that is well suited to the addition of the Cornet and Sackbut players. Noting that there is no definitive original performing score that tells us how and when Byrd performed the music, Raven writes that “the nature of Renaissance music, as it was written, deliberately encouraged multiple approaches”. Having digested these points of performance practice, I settled in expecting a more robust account of the music that would enhance the expressive power of Byrd’s music.
The program begins with a beguiling instruments-only performance of the motet Constitues eos. The players offer fabulously refined playing, with a rich burnished timbre that instantly creates a mood of regal solemnity. Yet with the initial vocal entries of the Venite, doubts began to creep in. The overall quality of the singing is fine, but rarely more than that. Diction is inconsistent throughout. There are passages where the choir seems fully engaged and they sing with a textual intensity that brings the sentiment of the text alive. Most often this occurs in the anthems and motets - perhaps because they are more standard repertoire for these singers? Yet, at other times the singers seem to be on auto-pilot, and the text’s meaning simply doesn’t come across. There are also a few moments of questionable tuning that were unexpected - I cannot recall any such issues on their Palestrina recordings for the same label. The excellence of the instrumental playing only serves to highlight these vocal issues.
Yet these are minor quibbles that I could easily tolerate, even with repeated listening. What proved most frustrating was the combination of instruments and voices. I expected this would heighten the “kaleidoscopic character” about which Raven wrote, yet it rarely did, in large part because the use of the instruments is not handled imaginatively. Basically the full consort plays colla parte with the voice throughout the entire piece of music, throughout the CD. Surely there are moments where the choir could sing unaccompanied, and then, in the final bars of a piece, add the instrumentalists to make the last phrase more overwhelming? Having just listened to the Gabrieli Consort’s “New Venetian Coronation” recording, one of its many strengths is how creatively the instruments accompany the singers. McCreesh and his forces sometimes seem to find more color and contrast in the music than one would think possible. Byrd’s Great Service is indeed filled with a kaleidoscope of changing colors and textures, and the addition of instruments should only heighten that effect. Sadly, that never happens, and as a result I came away from this experience underwhelmed.
Part of the blame may lie with the recording. This music - especially with the addition of a wind consort - seems tailor-made for a larger space than was used here. The recording engineers have captured a nice bloom around the voices and instruments, allowing a great amount of inner detail to emerge. Yet the space seems to confine the sound, with climaxes somewhat constricted, or held in check. Surely the ending of the Magnificat should be a transcendent moment, an explosion of joyous sound: here, it is perfectly manicured, but remains stubbornly earthbound.
I enjoyed this performance more than the version done by The Tallis Scholars. I have not heard the Westminster Abbey recording. However, in October Hyperion is releasing another CD of The Great Service, this one by the Cardinall’s Musick, led by Andrew Carwood. These same forces have already recorded a stunning 13-CD series of Byrd’s Latin Church Music for ASV Gaudeamus and Hyperion, in which they demonstrated a complete mastery of Byrd’s music. Perhaps it is best to wait until October.
David A. McConnell
I came away from this experience underwhelmed.